This is a commentary I was bound to write regardless of the outcome of the midterm election. I start by saying that your country is not so great, Americans. Any discussion of "what went wrong" must be prefaced with that statement. Harsh words, perhaps, but I do not utter them in haste. And we need to say it over and over again until we change it.
The United States is at the bottom of the barrel. We don't live well. Since the 1970s, the bottom 90 percent has experienced income stagnation, while the top 1 percent has seen its wealth skyrocket. In America, two-thirds of income gains in recent years went to the top 1 percent. The gap between rich and poor hasn't been so great since 1928, right before the first Great Depression, with the top 20 percent controlling 84 percent of the wealth. In Sweden, the top 20 percent owns 36 percent. Canada and Western Europe all have greater social mobility than the so-called "land of opportunity," and with far more generous benefits, over a month of vacation, real universal health care -- you get the picture. If the citizens of all of these advanced nations are living better than Americans, then what is so special about America?
And yet, this recent election is a testament to this country's proclivity -- with help from the bottom 90 percent -- to keep things the way they are, if not worsen them. Some people vote with the oligarchy against their own interests because they simply lack the proper information. There's lots of blame to go around.
Turnout from the base. Young voters and African-Americans, a key part of the Democratic base, refused to show up in the numbers they should have to turn this thing around. And 29 million people who voted in 2008 stayed home this year. If you don't use democracy you lose it. But then again, perhaps many felt as if they had no reason to vote. And their silence is as deafening as the noise made in the voting booth. There is no question that the president lost touch with his soldiers, far more than a hundred interviews on hip-hop radio stations could ever make up. This is not to excuse those who sat out of the race, but it's trickier than that. The reality is that the White House appeared arrogant and distant, even dismissive and impatient towards its progressive supporters-turned-critics. Obama must answer to the voters, not scold them, but he got it twisted somewhere along the way.
Anti-Wall Street sentiment. Clearly, the voters who went against the Democrats were mad at Wall Street. One would conclude that an anti-Wall Street fervor should favor the Democrats. But the Democrats are as much a party of corporate enablers as are the Republicans. Obama decided to cozy up to the bankers and prop them up rather than tear them down for the havoc they engineered. Plus, he surrounded himself with dead weight -- Wall Street shills and neoliberal Clinton insiders among his closest advisors. These individuals have utter contempt for unions, "the professional left" and other components of the base. This was not the change the Obama supporters thought they were getting in November 2008. Meanwhile, average Americans observed that as they struggled through hard times, with mounting bills, chronic unemployment and foreclosures, the banks were not left wanting.
Compromise. "We were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn't change how things got done," President Obama said. And he is right. Cutting deals with lobbyists and watering down health care reform for the sake of putting another notch in your belt is the old way of doing things. Compromising with the other side from a position of weakness and giving away the store before the negotiations even start -- well that's just plain naïve.
Also naïve was the administration's belief that it could compromise with Republicans, the extremists who awake every morning wishing and hoping for his downfall. Perhaps it would have been possible decades ago, but not now. Wasting too much time on this quixotic dream of compromise as an end, rather than one of various possible means to an end, gave the Republicans their opening. Now, the GOP is even more extreme, racist and uncompromising after its Teabilly infusion of white supremacists, Christian Taliban, conspiracy theorists and certified kooks.
A weak, fraidy cat administration. Obama failed to exert his power and authority in many ways, often appearing weak and equivocating. His heart just wasn't in it. The stimulus was a half measure that was not bold enough, and contained tax cuts designed to attract Republican support that never came. The plan failed to restore the 11.5 million jobs needed to get America back to pre-recession levels. And Obama continued Bush's trillion dollar folly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bigger than the rest of the world's armies combined, the U.S. war machine sucks up nearly half of the discretionary dollars in the federal budget, crippling our ability to compete with China.
Obama did not take the jobs problem seriously enough soon enough, and the lunatic right gave him a beat down with it, dismissing his entire agenda as ineffective and creating a top-down faux populist movement to mess him up. The Citizens United decision all but guaranteed a conservative multi-billion dollar buyout of the election by the Koch brothers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Fox and an array of sketchy, shady interests, anonymous and unaccountable.
The Economy and F.D.R. It's the economy stupid, but it's what you do and say as a leader in tough economic times that matters. Oddly, candidate Obama's effective communication strategy has not translated into President Obama the great communicator. The use of the narrative is important, particularly in bad times, and Reagan knew it. President Obama could have traveled the F.D.R. route and crafted a message of economic populism, with Wall Street greed and predatory capitalism as the clear enemy, and himself as the national hero who has come to make things right. If the narrative resonates with an approving public, who cares which party controls Congress?
President Roosevelt betrayed his class, saying "I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made." In his inauguration speech, he said the "Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.... The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit." Not having sought enemies--though the enemies found him-- Obama chose not to follow F.D.R., and is paying a price. Yet he must do this very thing if he wants a second term.
A New Movement. A sustainable movement for social and economic justice must help this president to place him on the path of greatness that these crisis times demand, that his campaign promised. Nothing less than America's future is at stake. Whether it is an internal effort to wrest control from the corporatist neoliberals smothering the Democratic Party, or an independent movement, or both, it must be done. I refer to this genuinely organic, bottom-up antithesis of the Tea Party as the "Hot Chocolate" Party, to coin a term from my father-in-law. Hot chocolate is a sweet mix of diverse ingredients that brings comfort on cold days. Minimally caffeinated compared to tea, it can ease fatigue and positively affect health.
Despite their immediate victory, it is almost certain that the GOP Hate Caucus is running on borrowed time. It is expected they will disappoint immensely. Devoid of ideas, they will die from a combination of infighting, overreaching, and insurmountable demographic shifts in the nation. But in the meantime, progressives must sustain a movement to provide cover and apply pressure to Obama and any subsequent presidents.
Roosevelt asked civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph to "go out and make me do it," that is, make him use his power and the bully pulpit to right the wrongs and do the things they both agreed should be addressed. We, too, must make Obama do it, for him and for ourselves.